(Original image source.)
Good Old Games seems to be going from strength to strength. This unusual digital distribution service has won over major publishers in recent months, allowing it to reintroduce classic titles to an appreciative older audience as well as a whole new generation of gamers. The recent release of Master of Orion, Master of Orion 2 and the beloved Master of Magic, in particular, should be applauded for reminding everyone of the fantastic work done by SimTex Software‘s Steve Barcia, one of gaming’s forgotten designers. It’s also left many a gamer hoping for more titles from Microprose’s great catalogue.
(Dare one hope for Arnold Hendrick’s Darklands, fully patched up and DOSbox-ready?)
All’s not peachy keen, however.
GOG had to pull three Codemasters titles from its service last year because of licensing issues. It’s hard to blame GOG for this since the rights holder belatedly realised it didn’t actually have the full rights for Colin McRae Rally 2005, TOCA Race Driver 3 and Operation Flashpoint. In truth, there was little harm done as customers who had already purchased those games from GOG could download them as usual. This was a minor issue and well handled.
However, GOG does have a messy PR problem due to the way it goes about its business. A key selling point of the service has always been its games are guaranteed to be DRM-free. This meant games which originally shipped with DRM are stripped of it before being put on sale. While this extraordinarily brave policy left GOG very vulnerable to piracy, it was a policy that was universally hailed by gamers tired of intrusive and draconian DRM schemes. Here was a digital distribution service that got it. Here was a digital distribution service that understood customers do not take kindly to being treated like potential thieves after they have paid for a product. Here was a digital distribution service that truly deserved gamer support.
The problem was no one knew how GOG went about removing the DRM. The details are troubling to say the least.
In at least two documented instances, GOG used modified cracks obtained from the warez scene to strip out DRM from games. When this was pointed out in its forums, GOG staff responded thusly:
As some of you already know, GOG does not always get access to game masters. In this respect, we regularly have to resort various approaches to ensure we can deliver a DRM-free game that works on modern operating systems. We have always conducted these programming works in accordance with the relevant rights owners. Every game we sell has been approved by the latter.
That’s sufficiently vague that it’s not an admission of guilt but neither is it a flat denial.
The bottom line here is the practice is indefensible and it must stop. GOG cannot claim a moral high ground in taking a consumer-friendly DRM-free stance when it actively seeks out pirate-authored cracks to ensure its games are DRM-free. The pirates are the ones consumers have to thank for the obnoxious DRM schemes in the first place.
The fact these cracks are used with the acknowledgement and approval of copyright holders only makes the situation worse. The copyright holders are having it both ways as they are both proponents of anti-consumer DRM in games and unethically, if indirectly, profiting from the work of pirates.
(Comically, the pirates are apparently indignant GOG and the rights holders are making money with their cracks.)
This is not the first time a pro-DRM company has resorted to pirate-authored software, of course. Ubisoft notably used a crack to circumvent its own DRM but then one has come to expect thoughtless DRM-related policies and behaviour from that company in recent years.
This situation with GOG is particularly disappointing because gamers could previously point to it as a sterling example of how things ought to be done. As things stand now, though, gamers could not be faulted if they lost faith in GOG. To avoid that, GOG must maintain its DRM-free stance and it must stop using pirate-authored cracks. If this means some games cannot be sold through its service, so be it. If this means some games may have to be pulled from its catalogue, so be it. It would be sickening if the one digital distribution service that took a firm stand against DRM did so in an unethical fashion.